Ruby reaches for a toy

A few years ago I was in an audience of 100+ people, when on the screen in front of us a video began to play of a little girl -- baby Ruby, "just a week shy of 6 months old" -- reaching for a toy:

I love this video. But when I first saw Ruby really struggling (or maybe striving) for the toy, I felt this anxious urge to push it closer to her. Now, having shown the video to countless audiences, I know that most people have a similar reaction. Why is that, why is it so many of us feel this visceral need to help Ruby when she doesn't actually need our help?

There's not one simple "That's it!" answer, but there is something we can easily conclude from our emotional response: at some level we underestimate what children are capable of doing for themselves. And this is true for even some of the most experienced parents and veteran educators out there. For instance, I've seen hundreds of colleagues in the Montessori Method -- a style of education that values the independence of the child as sacred -- who watch this video literally on the edge of their seats wanting to help little Ruby. The fact is, at times we can feel compelled to offer children aid even when there may not be any sign they need or want it. (In Ruby's case, not once does she even look away from the toy for an adult's aid.)

Now part of this reaction is coming from the best within us. We understand that children actually need our support so very much growing up, and we ourselves sincerely enjoy sharing in the growth of those we care about. So the point is definitely not to withhold our love and guidance. Rather, it's that we should thoughtfully reflect on how best to give it. So when we have an urge to offer help, before acting on it we can simply ask ourselves a question: Does this child genuinely need me right now or is he/she actually saying, explicitly or implicitly, "I can do it myself"? And this goes for 6-month-olds as well as for 16-year-olds (it actually goes for 60-year-olds, too).

Of course, in the day-to-day it's not at all easy (or practical time-wise) to always successfully answer that question. But Ruby is a great reminder of the importance of at least asking it. For if we pause a moment before jumping to the rescue, we may find that what our initial emotion felt was a little girl's needy struggling, our thoughtful observation knows better as a growing child's independent striving.


P.S. During a talk earlier this year, I showed "Ruby reaches for a toy" to a theater full of teenagers -- and they literally cheered out loud at the end! Was such a great experience. If you'd like to see the talk, you can watch it here.

*Note that this post was originally sent as jemslife's September 2015 Newsletter. If you are not receiving the free Newsletter, you can sign up for it below.


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To contact Jesse McCarthy for media, consulting and speaking, email